The New York City Garment District, that legendary swath of Seventh Avenue featured in plays (I Can Get It for You Wholesale) and movies (The Garment Jungle, Klute) was once the center of clothing design and manufacturing in America. But Kansas City had its own bustling garment district for decades, located in the commercial buildings between SIxth and 11th streets and Wyandotte and Washington.
Although the companies are long forgotten - Mayfair Playwear, Gay Gibson Junior Dresses, Mary-Lane Coats and Suits - the manufacturers made a huge impact on the local economy: As late as the 1960s, local garment manufacturers employed 5,000 workers. In the decade before that, 150 local garment companies employed 8,000 workers. By 1982, the industry - and all those jobs - had simply evaporated.
Ann Brownfield, who worked in Kansas City's garment industry as a fashion designer, has a unique perspective on Kansas City's rise and fall as a clothing manufacturing center. She'll share her story and the history of the local garment trade on Sunday, September 15, at 2 p.m. at the Kansas City Central Library, 14 West 10th Street.
So what did happen to Kansas City's garment industry, which had its heyday in the 1950s?
Brownfield, the curator of the Garment District Museum, has also co-authored a new book, We Were Hanging By a Thread, with David W. Jackson of the Jackson County Historical Society. She says the primary reason that the once-thriving garment district unraveled is that it lost its customer base.
"We lost all the little mom-and-pop dress shops from St. Louis to Seattle," Brownfield says. "The big-box stores and the chain department stores put them all out of business. Also, the styles changed dramatically, which meant changing a lot of the expensive machinery."
Brownfield scoffs at the story that unions put the local dress and coatmaking operations out of business.
"The unions had nothing to do with it," Brownfield says. "Nelly Don, for example, was a non-union shop and it went out of business at the same time as the rest of them. If there was a labor issue, it was that our sewers were mostly immigrants and when they got too old to continue working, the younger generation had no interest at sitting down and sewing all day."